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A Secret from 1776 to Improve Your Productivity

by | Apr 27, 2023 | Productivity

There are three main approaches to improve productivity: increase worker efficiency; increase working capital or equipment; or increase worker energy and motivation. This post is going to examine the first option to increase your productivity and therefore increase your output, while keeping everything else the same.

Initially published in 1776, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith talks about the division of labour and the huge associated productivity boost. He gives the example of a pin maker. This craftsman works from start to finish on each pin from drawing out the wire, to straightening it, to putting the ball at the end, and to sharpening it. This craftsman can produce about 20 pins a day. Assuming he works 10 hours, a day’s productivity can be described at 20 pins/day or 2 pins/person-hour.

Enter the division of labour, meaning dividing each task into its different underlying subtasks and allocating those various subtasks to different people, where each person only does that one subtask or groups of subtasks. By eliminating all the tool changes, production goes up to 48,000 pins a day with 10 workers. Meaning, that if each worker works 10 hours a day, the productivity will be now 480 pins/person-hour. This is a 240-fold increase in productivity and laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.

Now, I can hear you saying, but I’m only one person and I don’t have access to more people, so it’s all nice and swell to say that if I had more people, my productivity and general output would increase, but I don’t have more people, so his whole argument is moot. Of course, just because you can’t benefit from that extra headcount doesn’t mean that you have to work conceptually as if you were the only one worker. What do I mean? Approach the work employing the division of labour as your underlying principle.

Returning to our pin factory and pin maker, instead of this craftsman working from start to finish on each pin, the pin-making process can be divided into its underlying subtasks, and each of the subtasks can be done repeatedly on a series of pins instead of on one pin at a time. Although there are now still some tool changes through this new approach, these have been minimized, leading to a great increase in productivity.

Let’s now apply this to a more concrete example, manufacturing leather zipper pencil cases from a leather working business of mine. The underlying subtasks are: cutting the leather pieces, edge finishing the exposed leather ends, gluing the zipper in place, sewing the zipper in place, sewing the pieces of leather together, cutting the thread ends, and turning the piece sewed inside-out right-side out.

If I were to make one leather zipper pencil case at a time, there is a lot of time when I’m not working as either I’m changing tools or locations, or waiting for something to dry before I can jump to the next step. For example, to cut leather, you need to physically get the leather, unroll it on your work bench, find your pattern outline, locate your knife, ensure that it’s sharp, and afterwards you need to roll the leather back up, put your knife away in its sheath, and clear your work area.

Similarly, after gluing the zipper to the two leather pieces, I need to wait for the glue to dry before going to the next step of sewing it in place. This whole process from start to finish using this method takes around one hour to finish a single case, so to say 1 case/person-hour. If I do three cases back-to-back, using this same approach, there are some time savings, so takes around 2.5 hours to complete the three cases, a time cost savings of roughly 18% which increases output to 1.2 cases/person-hour.

To increase productivity to the next level, I work on ten cases at a time, meaning that I do each of the subtasks 10 times before jumping to the next one. Now, I still have to set myself up to cut the leather, but this time, it’s now to the benefit of 10 pieces instead of only one. Applying economic terms to this exercise, we now have roughly the same fixed cost (time), but each case’s relative fixed costs (so to say, its share of it) is roughly 1/5 of what it was otherwise while making each piece one at a time from start to finish.

Likewise, by doing all the gluing back-to-back for the 10 cases, I don’t need to wait before sewing the zipper in place as the glue on the first case had time to dry while I was gluing another case one. This leads to a huge timesaving. And by employing this approach to all of the different subtasks, I can get the output to around 5 cases/person-hour, meaning that it takes me two hours to make 10 cases as compared to around 2.5 cases in the same amount of time using the other method. From a number’s perspective, productivity has increased roughly 4-fold and this, simply by approaching the work differently without any effect on quality. This is huge.

The division of labour doesn’t only apply to pure manufacturing, it also applies knowledge work which can often also be divided into subtasks. For example, instead of formatting a document as you’re writing it and interrupting your flow, why not wait until you’re done writing it to do that. Or better yet, why not create the style sets before writing the document and then simply assign those different styles as you are writing.

Another example, rather than interrupting writing a report with research, research a little first; write the text leaving gaps to be filled later when the research is complete; complete your research; and fill in the gaps. Obviously, the best would be to do all the research first, but this is not always possible, so try to at a minimum to figure a way how to keep the interruptions to your writing flow to a bare minimum.

As a third example, instead of interrupting your flow by answering each email as it comes into your inbox, close your email inbox and work on your other task until it is all done or for good block of time, and then open up your email program and answer your emails back-to-back. Uninterrupted work produces drastically higher output (and often better quality too) as compared to constantly switching between tasks. Cal Newport dives into this concept of working without distraction at great length in Deep Work and argues that uninterrupted focus is essential to producing your best and highest quality work.

And as a last example, instead of entering in your receipts or payments piecemeal as they are received or incurred, set aside some time and enter them all in back-to-back. By doing them all at once, the overall time commitment to enter in all of this data is significantly less than it is just entering in a couple receipts and payments here and there.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Before diving into a task, take a step back and analyze the underlying subtasks required, group the similar ones together, and then do those one after another instead of spacing them over time. Hopefully, you will see a marked improvement in your productivity. Good luck!

Matthew Meland

Matthew Meland

Lawyer at FFMP, entrepreneur, blogger

As a lawyer with a diversified civil and commercial law practice, I often work with start-ups and small businesses. On the side, I am involved in several businesses from education services to high-tech.


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